Melissa Mark-Viverito leads fight for NYC Council speaker

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, at Trayvon Martin protest (far l.) and waving Puerto Rican flag with Christine Quinn (top l.), could succeed her as Council speaker.

Jefferson Siegel

New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito aims to succeed Christine Quinn as Council speaker.

A fierce behind-the-scenes battle is unfolding in far-off Puerto Rico this weekend over New York City’s second-most powerful political post — speaker of the City Council.

The council’s 51 members will soon elect a successor to Christine Quinn, who is set to leave office Jan. 1.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, 44, has rapidly emerged as the front-runner among a half-dozen Council members vying for the job.

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Born in Puerto Rico to affluent parents and educated at Columbia University, she is a former staff member at 1199/SEIU, the powerful health care workers union, and has represented her home neighborhood of East Harlem and the South Bronx for the past eight years.

In the Council, she defied Quinn, a close ally of Mayor Bloomberg, with her stands on living wage and stop-and-frisk legislation. And as chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Committee, Mark-Viverito repeatedly challenged Bloomberg’s efforts to hand private schools special use of ballfields on Randalls Island in exchange for payments to the city.

But leading the pack hardly assures Mark-Viverito the 26 votes needed to win.

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In the past, the Democratic Party’s borough bosses effectively chose the speaker. They simply reached a last-minute backroom deal where they divided up committee chairmanships and staff positions among their delegations.

Not surprisingly, four of those bosses — state Assemblyman Keith Wright of Manhattan, Frank Seddio of Brooklyn, Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, and State Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx — have scheduled a meeting Friday in San Juan. The get-together takes place during the annual Somos El Futuro retreat organized by Albany’s Hispanic legislators, where the speaker’s race will be a big topic.

But we are in a new era in New York City politics. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is also attending the San Juan conference, and de Blasio is now the 800-pound gorilla among the city’s Democrats.

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For the past 20 years, mayors had no influence on the speaker’s selection because neither Michael Bloomberg nor Rudy Giuliani were Democrats.

With the huge mandate voters gave him on Tuesday, you know de Blasio wants a speaker who shares his vision. He hasn’t endorsed anyone so far, but don’t believe the claims of his staff that he is not focused on the issue.

No one in the current Council is closer to de Blasio than Mark-Viverito. She was the first member of that body to endorse him for mayor back when he was mired in fourth place among Democratic contenders.

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She also co-chairs the influential Progressive Caucus that the Working Families Party launched several years ago. And she is a close ally of the next public advocate, Letitia James. Then there are the 21 freshman Council members, many of whom swept to victory with the support of the Working Families Party.

“These new young firebrands don’t want to know about machine politics,” said Eric Adams, the Brooklyn state senator and borough president-elect. “They have their own minds.”

Finally, Mark-Viverito has the strong backing of key Hispanic leaders like Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Manhattan State Sen. Adriano Espaillat. They insist that now that 30% of the city’s population is Hispanic, Mark-Viverito is the best hope for a Latina holding a major citywide office.

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Leaders of 1199 clearly sought to underscore their support for Mark-Viverito by honoring both her and Letitia James at an event Thursday night at the San Juan conference.

Still, Mark-Viverito has her share of detractors. Several Council veterans say privately she is too aloof and combative to be speaker. They prefer someone more approachable and inclusive, like Manhattan’s Daniel Garodnick or Mark Weprin of Queens.

In the end, though, the choice of a new speaker will depend more on the influence of our new mayor and of the freshman Young Turks in the Council than on those old party bosses.

jgonzalez@nydailynews.com

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